Homeward Bound: Final Notes on El Camino de Santiago

How can I begin to describe the Camino? It was nothing like I imagined or planned for. Except, meeting people was, as promised the best part of the trip. I can’t explain the feeling of being on the Camino, in part because it is so different, all the time. For every person. It is so deeply personal, so to share how the Camino felt to me, seems somehow beside the point. But I can try. I can start by describing my last night.  That day it was strange, it was all ending. But because I had done such odd sections I knew hardly anyone. And after I left the cathedral I felt a bit lonely, I wanted to share this joy of completion with others who understood. I lost touch with the couple I was walking with. They were waiting for the group they were walking with to come in. It seemed, that’s what everyone was doing over the days. Yet, I was so far ahead of my main group, that couldn’t happen. Or so I thought. After an afternoon of wandering the city, I was debating dinner, but didn’t want to face busy tapas bars full of celebrating pilgrims alone. But I thought, of course, I can’t just stay in. And so I left the hotel. Backing up for a moment to earlier that day, while walking I casually met a few others, a retired couple from California, another couple from Ireland, and a handful of others. They were brief exchanges, a few minutes really. But when I wandered into the street that night I ran into them. And once you meet someone on the Camino you are friends. So I joined them for dinner. And from there we discovered mutual friends, I ran into several people I knew, one I hadn’t seen since France, on the first day. It wound up being one of the best nights on the Camino. In part, I think because I finally gave myself over to it. Before you start they tell you, just be open to whatever happens, the universe will provide you with what you need. Which, naturally I felt was a bit too new-age for me. But of course, they were right. When I needed companionship the most I found it. As the group dwindled, and the night progressed, and new friends seemed more akin to old, I felt immensely thankful for just wandering out of the hotel with no plan in mind. And that’s how it’s always been. I finally just accepted it fully. I couldn’t craft a Camino experience, I just had to let it happen. I had to give up control. A lesson I wish I learned earlier. But glad I learned at all. Had I not left the hotel, my camino may have left with a vastly different feel. But because of that night, I’ll remember my last day as one of the best. That is the Camino though, condensed. Highs and lows, community, trusting things will work out, and being open to new experiences. Bittersweetness. Or also: life. Overall, I didn’t love every second of course. Though there were considerably more highs than lows. I was also supremely lucky weather wise, it rained, really, only once.  And it was hard physically. But it also wasn’t. Ultimately it’s as hard as you make it, generally speaking, it’s a gentle walk, aside from a few substantial elevation gains.. If you decide to walk 50km, well then, you knew what you were getting yourself into. I think why there are so many people with so many injuries.  It seems to be a lot of people push too hard for their fitness level, trying to keep up with friends or guidebook stages. Not to say I didn’t feel pains, oh, I mostly certainly did! That’s part of trekking, but nothing beyond what I could be expected to reasonably tolerate. And, unlike most treks a lot of people on the Camino are not generally in good shape, let alone trekking shape (I was not in trekking shape, but I did have a generally good fitness level). Or they didn’t plan enough and brought huge packs they weren’t used to carrying. Or they planned too much, and it ended up being inappropriate for their body’s capabilities. So, I think because I am young, had good shoes, good fitness, and a bit of luck, I had very few problems.  Anyone who gives advice about the Camino always adds, know your body, hike your own hike. And yes. That. I actually planned too much for the Camino, I read too many things about what could go wrong. Forums are a blessing to be sure, but in my case I delved in too much. So did others, like one bringing mace (which is illegal in Spain) because someone somewhere said there were wild dogs that bite people. There are 200,000+ people walking this every year, it’s in the country. Statistics suggest someone would have an unpleasant encounter with a dog. But really, totally unnecessary to worry about. Never once saw an aggressive dog. In fact, most of the advice I read, though perhaps more important for July/August was dead wrong for me. Never once did I have problems finding accommodation, never heard or saw of bed bugs. Certainly no rabid dogs. I took care of my feet but didn’t go insane with it, silk liners with wool outer socks and broken in shoes being my only defense (and I got zero blisters). In fact, research almost scared me out of doing the whole thing. Of course, a lot of people could have done with more prep, but for me, I think very little (aside from fitness and what to bring) is necessary. And really, most people do make it, just slower perhaps than they intended. And perhaps with more pain. Not to diminish the accomplishment of course. Because it is a major accomplishment, and it isn’t easy. But it is? You do, eventually adapt. You stop feeling your pack, your legs take you further, while complaining less. Or, at least, this is true for most people. It’s so difficult to explain. The hardest part is hands down psychological. And you can’t plan for that anyway. When you’re tired, and it’s raining, and you miss home. And the last thing you want to do is sleep in a room with twenty other people, and perhaps you are in pain, and finding little joy that day. That is the real challenge of is walk, to trust that it will get better. But, if you put one foot in front of the other, and keep going, chances are it will indeed get better. For me, it always did. And the highs always felt better after experiencing lows. They tell you the camino is a constant analogy for life. I’d argue the camino is life, just highly condensed and a bit more raw and evident. It’s also easy, because, all you do every day is get up, walk, eat, find a bed, shower, maybe wash your clothes (I only once did my laundry by hand, but otherwise shared machines with others), eat, relax, socialize, and maybe read. Throughly oddly enough, almost no one I met read. You’re usually too tired, doing something else, or socializing. But it was so simple! And the joy of simple routine of a very basic existence is addictive. You don’t have belongings to worry about, you can’t shop (because then you’d have to carry it), you don’t have a car, or a home, you just have yourself. So life is simple, but is so enriched by the community you’re with. It feels like you’re touching on an existence far more suitable to humankind than modern society. But! With all the perks of modern society like plumbing. And wifi. And high tech fibers that dry right away. It’s fantastic! So what would I do differently if I were to do it again? I’d do a different route, one that’s less crowded (but still social) and ideally, with less concrete (my one real complaint of this trek). But I wouldn’t trade doing the Frances for anything. I would, in fact, pack lighter. Not because you don’t get used to your pack. I did stop noticing it. Mine wasn’t actually all that heavy at around 7.5kg, without water or food, though I almost never carried food on me aside from a bit of chocolate. But just because you don’t need very much, and having something you want to keep for regular life, but is just sitting unused in your bag is the worst. It feels immensely frustrating.  If you need it, you can generally buy it. I would look at my guide less, it’s helpful, but it’s not a rule manual, the best bits of the Camino usually come from the unplanned anyway, so let that happen. After I lost it, it was no problem really. I would also walk longer days. Not further at first, but longer, though maybe longer too once I got I trail shape (ten days to two weeks out). Getting in too early might secure you a bed, but it’s also boring, and you tend to miss talking to others at coffee breaks. It took me awhile to figure that one out. But I do enjoy fast walking and a physical challenge, so adding kilometers would have solved that problem. And I wouldn’t worry about meeting people. It happens so easily and naturally, you have to be pretty vigilant about keeping potential friends away. But also, I did feel well prepared, and I didn’t make any huge errors I’d correct if I were to be granted a re-do. As for life changing ideas? Not so much. Which is what I suspected. I also wasn’t looking for anything. But I did realize that lately I was feeling a bit far from myself, which is only natural in the sometimes stressful, faced paced city existence of my regular life. Not a major change, but just a slow shift of not feeling grounded. Travel, like this, not just a holiday, grounds me. It brings me back to myself. It rechecked my priorities and goals. It’s a subtle reminder of what’s important (namely, people) and what isn’t (namely, things and ego). So I needed this. I think most of western humanity needs something like this. I was reminded that while I’m introverted and generally perfectly comfortable alone, that I do crave social contact, and fear of being alone does exist for me. In my ideal world, I have a small community that I see regularly, but can also step away from when I need it. But, I didn’t have any major revelations. If anything I just want to experience more things like this. It felt very much like I’d hit a life refresh button. I had individually fantastic experiences. But also, it was so many life experiences in such a short amount of time. It refueled me, and my desire for exploration. I’ve now added the PCT, Kungleden, Te Araroa, Colorado Trail, and GR 20 to my hiking/ life to-do list. It reminded me that I am capable, and strong. Because sometimes you forget. And question. But, of course I could do this. I just needed to be reminded of that. I was reminded how good it feels to be in nature. How right it feels. How good it feels to be strong physically. Not just in shape, but strong in a very fundamentally human way. When I was a teenager, or in my younger twenties I exercised probably more for vanity. But now, feeling control of my body, and what it’s capable of is such a great feeling. I don’t believe I’ve ever felt this sort of strength before. It’s something I don’t want to give up. I walked a damn marathon. And a half marathon or more everyday for weeks. I’m thankful to be able-bodied, to not be limited in any way, that most things in this world are physically within my grasp. My body gives me the opportunity for so much, the least I can do is take care of it. I am curious how adjusting back to regular life will be. While I’m excited to be home, and for all the changes this summer will bring, living in various cities around the U.S., I know I am going to miss the trail deeply. But luckily, there are trails all over the world. Some, quite close to home. Nothing will ever be like this Camino (even if I did another Camino), but of course, that’s a good thing. I’ll do my best not to feel loss at this ending, but feel joy in the memory of it. There are so many new adventures to have. And while I may be a bit sad and miss my life on this trail, with these people, I know, just like with all travel, with all life experiences, it will stay with me. It will have subtly changed my life, and be incorporated into all of my life experiences that have shaped who I am. And finally, I’m just simply thankful for this experience. It was a great privilege to hike this trail. I have only a few true life goals. One which is trying to live a life worth remembering. The Camino, this experience, these people are all most certainly worth remembering.

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One thought on “Homeward Bound: Final Notes on El Camino de Santiago

  1. Pingback: Desolation Wilderness Backpacking with Trail Mavens | Colliding With The Earth

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